If you want to make your mark at SXSW, a high-profile showcase slot will get you a ways, but you can't stop there. Nobody plays just a time or two down here if they know what's best for 'em; if you want to keep the buzz going, you've gotta haul your stuff down 6th Street just as fast as you can get between makeshift stage and cramped backyard. The younger the band and the bigger the buzz going into SXSW, the more gigs they seem to rack up. So often, though, these bands get that positive word behind 'em before they've gained the confidence any decent live band needs, and those sets can often be interchangeable and, given the greenness of the performers, pretty lousy, too.
For all the comparatively established bands who make the trip down here to remind us all of their existence (hey, Devo, they've still got... hats), though, just working up a truncated version of the set they play night in and night out isn't an especially good look. Not only are your familiar favorites here taking slots away from the truly up-and-coming, but they're here in an environment that blanches at familiarity; why would I go see, I dunno, Trail of Dead bash the hell out of their songs here in Austin when I could've just as easily seen the same thing back home in Chicago? So for those bands already rattling around in the consciousnesses of the madding crowds down here, doing something truly weird is maybe the best bet to get the by-now-exhausted attendees to take notice.
A few years back, Atlanta's Black Lips were called out in The New York Times for their impressive hustle down here in Austin; 2007 saw them playing every gosh-darned minute of the day down here, and while they skipped the 2008 affair, they've been popping up on a few bills (though not as many as '07 by half) this time around. Earlier in the week, I caught wind that they'd been joined by the Wu-Tang Clan's master lyricist GZA at an outdoor show at the very out-of-the-way Compound, where they'd be collaborating on new material. The Black Lips make appealingly stupid blues-tinged garage rock; on the other hand, the GZA is, he'll have you know, the Genius. While the Lips are certainly capable of crafting the kind of smoky trouble grooves over which the Wu triumph on wax, it most certainly was not a sure bet, and I suspect most of the folks who made the trek out the Compound (well, the ones not trying to win a bag full of pants in the battle of the bands they'd been hosting, anyway) were, like me, more curious than excited. When I made my way to the Compound, GZA was sitting at a long table opposite the stage peering at the sweaty crowd with some mix of confusion and disgust on his face, though I suspect the latter might've just been the sun in his eyes. It was a look that read, "What in the hell am I getting into?" Well, they don't call him the Genius for nothing. Dude knew.
Not for lack of trying on GZA's part or anything, but it was terrible. Things began with the GZA half-apologizing for what we were about to see, which, short of locusts, is one of the worst signs you're about to witness something somebody's going to regret. Somebody cued up "Liquid Swords" (yes, like, off the CD) and the Lips very tentatively began playing over it as the GZA mustered up enough enthusiasm to make his way through the now-classic rhyme. They did another one in this manner—"Duel of the Iron Mic," I think it was—before GZA stopped them short. "We winging it up here," he reminded us, though we were well aware, and he commanded his band to just make something up he could rhyme over.
The thing is, as musicians go, the Black Lips are pretty terrible. It's a lot of their charm on record and at their own shows, sure, but "chops" they don't got, and just coming up with a quick little funk groove slow enough for the GZA to get all his words over proved the afternoon's great challenge. GZA stopped them several times before beatboxing a rhythm that was to his liking. He half-heartedly mustered a few more songs before making a hasty retreat backstage. It was over in 10 minutes, which was almost certainly the best part.
So: Terrible, but I respect the notion of doing something that out of character too much to not walk out of my way and waste some time. The opportunity for paths like those to cross doesn't happen nearly enough, and however rickety the execution was, at least it wasn't just another Black Lips set. With all the glockenspiel smackers and bass thumpers in a six block radius of downtown, you'd think the spirit of collaboration would be higher, but nah, not really; cool as it'd be to hear, say, Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors playing his rubbernecked guitar with Los Angeles' twinkle-punkers Abe Vigoda or something, that sort of stuff is all too hard to come by, which is why one must respect the intent of the weirdest GZA show ever, even if the execution could not have been worse. If you're here and we know who you are, you've gotta go a little weird, or you might as well go home.
But what's really weird: I saw Metallica last night at Stubb's, a barbecue restaurant with a good sized dirt lot around back. Weird, because it's Metallica, and this is 2009, and there's places q0 times bigger than Stubb's that'd seem like cozy little spots for a Metallica gig. The week's worst kept secret (actually, we'll see about that this afternoon, ahem) had Metallica doing a one-off here at SXSW to drum up some mentions of their new Guitar Hero game, and sure enough, those in the know (or who really wanted to stand in line) got Metallica in one of the smallest places they've played in probably two decades. Metallica '09 are some deeply professional characters, and it's not like they brought Lemmy or Wolves in the Throne Room out onstage to lend a hand during last night's 90 minute set. They came. They growled. They absolutely destroyed. I dig on gleeful amateurishness plenty, but sometimes there's plenty to be said for a bunch of folks who know what they're doing doing it well.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but thank gosh for Guitar Hero: Not only did they get the greatest metal band of all time to a joint like Stubb's, but—due to the game's finely tuned, light-on-the-Reload era setlist of Metallica bangers— they ensured that the band's riff-smart, song-stupid Death Magnetic material took a backseat to total classics. It was all a bit unbelievable, of course; I've somehow managed to never see Metallica before, and despite my immediate disappointment that they are not, in fact, 20 feet tall, seeing them from my perch even 100 yards back had me agog from note one. "Master of Puppets" was the highlight because yelling "OBEY! YOUR! MASTER! MASTER!" in a space rife with incredibly psyched Metallica fans is both wonderfully cathartic and totally frightening; you know, mind control and all that.
But, apart from the unforgivable lyrics in the few Death Magnetic tunes of the night and the odd but kind of awesome choice not to play "Enter Sandman," it was as deeply satisfying a Metallica show as a person could expect in 2009, and a nice remind that a show of professionalism can occasionally be as jarring as something like the GZA rapping over the Black Lips. Hell, I can't even be mad that I had to stand through half an hour of Silversun Pickups and some jokers playing "Fuel" on the big screen to get there. OK, I can be a little mad.